At a time when the word “reality” is at the forefront of pop culture conversation, Frederick Wiseman has his own ideas about what it means. And it doesn’t mean Joe Millionaire.
He should know whereof he speaks. When he arrives in Utah Monday for a weeklong series of lectures, the 73-year-old Wiseman will bring along a reputation as one of America’s most respected documentary filmmakers. For over 35 years, the ex-attorney has chronicled political, social and cultural institutions as diverse as a Chicago low-income housing project (Public Housing), a Benedictine monastery (Essene) and a ski resort (Aspen).
“I thought there were very dramatic aspects to ordinary experience which weren’t being documented,” Wiseman says of his gravitation toward documentary filmmaking. “The idea was, and still is, to document ordinary experience.”
He does, however, recognize the tension between capturing that ordinary experience, and turning those recorded moments into a film. Among the topics Wiseman will touch on in his lectures is the idea that documentaries are a form of fiction—which isn’t the same as saying they’re false.
“None of the elements are staged,” Wiseman contends, “but to convert those elements into a movie, you have to use techniques similar to fiction techniques. You introduce character. You have to get involved in questions of passage of time. … I try very hard to be fair to the experience I had at the place, but within that context, every aspect of documentary filmmaking represents a choice.”
This might seem like a great time for non-fiction that crosses over to appeal to mass audiences, but Wiseman identifies no connection between his work and the stuff that recently has captured television ratings and box office success.
He dismisses “reality television” as nothing of the sort—“It’s all artificial; all the situations are contrived”—just as quickly as he bemoans the fact that when people do go to the theater to see a documentary film, “they see something like Michael Moore [director of Bowling for Columbine].” When asked to expand upon the latter observation, Wiseman simply chuckles, “No further comment.”
For a documentary filmmaker like Wiseman, reaching that wider audience becomes a challenge of fighting stereotypes about the form. He balks at “the heavy weight that documentaries have that they’re supposed to be good for you, that they’re prescriptive. … A good documentary can be very funny, it can be sad, it can give you aspects of the human experience that resemble [fiction] movies or theater, if they’re done well.”
Wiseman finally tested those similarities himself when he made his first fiction feature, The Last Letter, in 2001. A film version of a stage production also directed by Wiseman, The Last Letter adapts a chapter of Ukranian Jewish author Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate. It speculates on the final thoughts of his mother (played by French actress Catherine Samie) shortly before her expected execution at the hands of the occupying Nazis.
The director acknowledged that working on a fiction film required him to stretch new muscles, but welcomed the challenge. “It’s the reverse process of making a documentary, where you work out everything in the editing,” he notes. “[In a fiction film,] you have to plan everything in advance, and you work it out in rehearsals. You have to figure out exactly what you want an actress to do. But I had an opportunity to work with a great actress, so why not? I don’t have to accept the categorization [of being a documentary filmmaker].”
Still, that’s where Wiseman continues to do most of his work, and the area in which he will be sharing his expertise during the coming week. He will be presenting films including The Last Letter, High School, Essene and the controversial, long-banned Titicut Follies. He will be leading a community discussion related to his two Domestic Violence films—airing Saturday and Sunday on PBS—sadly timely in light of recent domestic violence-related deaths in Utah. And he will likely move from here on to the next project that fascinates him with its ordinary humanness.
In fact, that very ordinary humanness is so reliable that Wiseman provides an unwitting insight into what makes “reality” entertainment so fascinating, even if we suspect some of it isn’t entirely real. When asked about how behavior might change while people are being filmed, Wiseman observes, “I don’t think people have the capacity to act differently. They can break the pattern, and say no or walk away [from the camera]. But most of us aren’t good enough actors to act differently just because our picture is being taken. If we were, the acting in fiction films would be better than it generally is.”
And maybe that’s a fitting distillation of Frederick Wiseman’s art: getting real about the experience of being human, because real is all we can ultimately get.